May 27, 2018
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Expert Opinion Still Too Shallow in the Cornhusker State

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The Nebraska Supreme Court issued a gem of a Daubert opinion in an Accutane case last week, Freeman v. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., No. S-17-800, 2018 WL 2296772, at *2 (Neb. May 18, 2018).  We don’t write much about Nebraska, but the last time we waxed on about the beauty of the Platte River Valley, we actually received a few emails.  That was when we wrote last year about the Daubert order that the Nebraska Supreme Court has now affirmed, in an opinion that is as correct and straight-headed as the order it was reviewing.  Indeed, the current opinion might actually be the end of this case, which has been kicking around in the Nebraska state courts amazingly since the late 1990s.

Nebraska keeps a low profile. Growing up in California, we were told that Nebraska is in the Midwest.  But then we went to college in New England and learned that Nebraska is just plain “West,” unqualified by any prefix.  Sandwiched in between Colorado and Iowa, we suppose that either moniker could justifiably apply.  Nebraska has the country’s largest railyard, including a tall public viewing tower from which you feel as if you are looking down on a sprawling model train set.  We know because we have been there.  We had a few hours to kill in North Platte one day (don’t ask why) and we Googled “things to do in North Platte.”

There is a city in Nebraska named Kearney and a street in San Francisco named Kearny. They are spelled differently and pronounced differently (Nebraskans say Car-nee,” while Californians say “Ker-nee.”).  But they are named after the same guy.  Go figure.

Legalwise, Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature—i.e., one chamber, with no separate house and senate.  The Nebraska state motto is “Equality Before The Law.”  We like that motto a lot, and we were even more impressed when we learned that it predates the Fourteenth Amendment by one year.  We begrudgingly admit that we prefer “Equality Before The Law” over our home state’s motto, “Eureka!”  The former echoes a bedrock principle of our post-Civil War legal tradition and is both declaratory and aspirational.  California’s motto celebrates sudden wealth.  Must have been sponsored by plaintiffs’ lawyers.

We like the Nebraska Supreme Court’s opinion in Freeman v. Hoffman-La Roche a lot, too.  The plaintiff was prescribed Accutane for chronic acne and allegedly experienced Crohn’s disease in her colon and rectum as a result.  2018 WL 2296772, at *2.  There is, however, no reliable scientific evidence showing a causal relationship between Accutane and this particular condition, so when it came time to produce the expert opinions necessary to prove her claims, the plaintiff could not come through.

She banked on a single expert, whom the trial court found to have applied an unreliable methodology and who “unabashedly cherry-picked supporting studies from an overwhelming contrary body of literature.” Id. The trial court’s 42-page order is among the more thorough orders on expert opinion that you will see, and you can review our take on it here.  It’s a strong order showing that the trial court understood who this expert was and what he was offering.

The Nebraska Supreme Court agreed, and it affirmed the exclusion of the expert’s opinions and the trial court’s order granting summary judgment. The Nebraska Supreme Court must have been as impressed with the trial court’s order as we were, because it affirmed the result in just a few pages.  Under Nebraska’s standard—known as the Daubert/Schafersman framework—the court must determine whether an expert’s methodology is reliable and whether the expert applied the methodology properly to the facts. Id. at *3.

This expert employed a “weight of the evidence” methodology, under which he purported to form an opinion based on a variety of disparate data—animal tests, case reports, epidemiological studies, etc. Id. at *4.  That methodology, according to the Nebraska Supreme Court, is generally accepted.  But the problem was and remains that the expert did not apply the methodology in a reliable fashion. Id. He recognized that there was no study determining that Accutane use was a risk factor for Crohn’s disease, but theorized that it would be a risk factor for a particular type of Crohn’s disease—Crohn’s disease of the colon.

Where did he get that? Well, essentially from nowhere.  He disregarded all but one of the epidemiological studies finding no significant relation between Accutane use and irritable bowel syndrome, which is a disease of the colon.  He also found studies reporting no association between Accutane use and Crohn’s disease a “waste of time” because they did not account for the “different manifestations” of Crohn’s disease.  He admitted, though, that the scientific community does not agree that “different manifestations” of Crohn’s disease make any real difference.  He also admitted that Crohn’s disease has a different clinical presentation and different causes than ulcerative colitis, but then he still relied on one study on ulcerative colitis to support his causation opinion. Id. at *4.  So Crohn’s disease is different, except when it isn’t.

Most tellingly, the expert rejected epidemiological studies on Crohn’s disease that showed no association because they did not focus narrowly on Crohn’s disease of the colon.  But then he relied on anecdotal case reports of Crohn’s disease in Accutane patients whether they reported disease of the colon or not.  So the location of the disease was critical when it helped him, but was immaterial when it did not.  As we said before, this is called talking out of both sides of your mouth, and it is neither good nor scientific.

Taking its cue from the trial court, the Nebraska Supreme Court thus concluded:

The objective of the trial court’s gatekeeping responsibility is to make certain that an expert, whether basing testimony upon professional studies or personal experience, employs in the courtroom the same level of intellectual rigor that characterizes the practice of an expert in the relevant field. Clearly, cherrypicking studies from an overwhelming contrary body of literature without valid, supporting reasons for why the other studies were disregarded does not meet the standard of intellectual rigor required of expert witnesses.

Id. at *5.  Without admissible expert opinion, the plaintiff tried to fill the gap with “internal documents,” but that fell short, too.  To the extent the documents were in the record, they did not show a causal relationship.  Id.  Summary judgment affirmed.  This expert’s opinion was shallower than the Platte River itself—a mile wide at its mouth and six inches deep, as some Nebraskans like to say.  We got that saying, by the way, from Bexis.



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